The Or-Else Church, part 6

Well, I can sit up in a chair easier now — and it’s Sunday. This series comes to an end but there’s no way the church-in-a-jiffy is done. Or could be done. But I think we knew that. Churches, like all institutions evolve, even if they start well-formed. And I’ve said nothing about hiring staff, finding a minister (even as supply) or religious education. And I’ve said much too little about finding space to meet, even though that’s a terrible challenge for many young congregations. There’s time enough for that later.

Let me finish with a guiding principles: All the work done for the new church should be at the best quality possible, given the circumstances. Money may be tight and the meeting space uninspiring, but there’s no excuse for an unfriendly welcome, rambling announcements or a lack of signage to the bathroom, and I’m sure most of us have been in churches that did all three. Better to establish a management guidebook and train from it and stick to it.

I’ll be coming back to the Or-Else church later this year.

The Or-Else Church, part 5

So the back is a bit more tolerable today and the show must go on. Like the Christmas thirteen years ago when I preached and led worship with partial facial paralysis from Bell’s Palsy. No, I hope it’s better that that. But note any typos or eccentric grammar in the comments.

This is a make up from yesterday, and I was going to write about outreach and — lo, and behold — there’s a new UUA blog about social networking, New Media for Unitarian Universalists written by Shelby Meyerhoff. Check that first. (I intend to review it, when I’m feeling better.) You might also notice I’m using the same theme — SimpleX — on this blog as that blog, but I’ve not yet read the articles so I’m sure there’s going to be some duplication and probably some contradiction.

I’ve been reading about church starts for years and talking to others about them even longer. There were some things you just did when you got started,  like getting a post office box and paying for a business phone line so you could pay for a tiny one-line listing in the Yellow Pages.  These were sunk costs and unavoidable.  Today, getting a Google account for the new church is the new unavoidable service — at least at first when money and expertise is thin — and between Gmail and Google Voice, you can do without the old post office and business line.  But at least they’re free of charge. (What about mail, if there’s no fixed meeting address? I’d say “email me and I’ll send you my home address.”)  By homesteading on Google, you can also create a web site, share documents, create online forms, follow your web traffic, create libraries from public domain books, receive donations and many other things besides. Again, free of charge and that’s not inconsiderable.

But I’ll confess some uneasiness. Google’s rising monopoly on information bothers me. But in practical terms it would be difficult to reproduce the services they provide even with paid vendors and impossible to do for free. But if you got that Internet domain like I suggested on day 1, you’ll start to have a way out.

I would also get an account with Delicious (to store and share favorite web links), Facebook (for its super-wide social networking base) and Twitter (for short-format notices). And I’d get at least two accounts: one for the church as an institution and at least one for the point person or leadership team. This allows the personal and congregational writing to be distinct because sooner or later some participant will want to hand over responsibilities or even leave the church.  And I’d get those accounts with names that match as much as possible because once they’re gone they’re gone.

I’d use Delicious to gather resources for a leadership team, to share with a study group or both. But the use is largely internal. I’d use Facebook to attract newcomers and to give them a sense of your ministry. I’d use Twitter — indeed, follow me as bitb — to give short notices to people already connected to the congregation for announcements.

And here’s the kicker. While these technologies make communication easier and the service may be free of charge, there are opportunity costs. Bloggers know this already. The time you use to send tweets or Facebook updates is time not used for other projects, so it may make sense for your new congregation to have one person who makes this his or her mission — and recognize it as a vital and central ministry.

All for now —

The Or-Else Church, part 4

So how big? How big the geographic catchment for most members — don’t want to get caught in too parochial a concept — and how big the meeting space?

First. So how big should the geographic bounds of the new church be? Conventional wisdom — I forget the provenance — suggests people will go as far to church as they will go to work, so Census records of commuting patterns would be helpful.

Consider Washington, D.C. workers. In this 2008 report of commuting patterns, 35.7% used transit — indeed, 23.8% of workers own no car; I don’t — and 43.6% of commuters take 24 minutes or less to get to work. This suggests to me that some will drive but many will take transit or walk, and you can expect to get people to come in about a half-hour radius. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good tool to suggest — say — a half hour’s reach from point X. Perhaps there’s some folk mapping tool out there. (I attended this workshop.)

I say this more to suggest that existing churches very often overstate how large their influence is, and miss out on opportunities for growth because they have to concentrate all their efforts in one building, when renting multiple sites — even for single occasional uses — would be more effective. Or alternately, be a clue that it’s high time to start a new church.

Back to rules of thumb — now for rental and purchased space — and I’ll save some thoughts for later.

11 sq. feet per adult for the meeting hall. The only really helpful and practical guide I found for this come from — of all places — the United States Air Force and its Religious Facilities Design Guide (PDF).

The Or-Else Church, part 3

So it’s been two days since I began my think-piece of gathering an “instant” church. And now a dose of heresy. Why do churches need membership?

In our own history, the parish or society had members based on financial sponsorship, and for a good swath of the history that meant pew rental or ownership. (It’s very easy to have a creedless system on that basis, even though the putative creedlessness of Universalism is grossly overstated. More about that later.) Both the Universalists and Unitarians were slow and often neglectful to nurture the core of the professed believers — the church proper, as opposed to the parish or society — and thus it’s easy to characterize the apparently secular mode of church government we enjoy. (This is most evident where there is a church that goes with a parish or society, or where they were at one point fused. Look for deacons as an institution. And as far as I can tell, the presence of the church proper, with a liturgy, are the best indicators of whether an older congregation stayed Christian.)

That said, I’m inspired — at least provisionally — by the distinction in membership made my the Uniting Church in Australia, which in its new (October 2009, pending approval; PDF) regulations distinguish between adherents and members. (The UCA distinction between baptized, confirmed and members-in-associationmay be less helpful in this context.)

1.1.22 In addition to a roll of members, a roll of persons who, though not members or members-in-
association, regularly attend the services of worship and share in the life of the Church shall
be kept. Such persons shall be known as adherents of the Church.
1.1.23 (a)    Adherents may attend and speak at meetings of the Congregation but shall not have
the right to vote.
(b)    Adherents may be appointed as members of committees of the Congregation.
1.1.24 In the event of an adherent moving beyond the bounds of a Congregation, the secretary of
the Church Council shall forward an appropriate letter informing the secretary of the Church
Council related to the new Congregation of the change.

Not a radical thought — many congregations have more or less formal “friends” — but the enrollment of adherents can be a useful social tool. First, “membership” has less of a hold on people than in generations past, and membership-oriented participation will surely discourage otherwise included people. Second, for membership-minded persons, it provides a manageable step towards membership without over-committing and without the risk of letting a person’s interest wither for trying to get the timing right.

Thinking both about historic Universalist polity of fellowship (though previously applied only to ministers and whole congregations) and Free and Open Source communities’ concepts of membership, I think this new church ought to have a fellowship committee, and that the membership it extends should

  • be limited to a term, and then subject to renewal, thus addressing the phantom member problem.
  • be based on a recognition of the support of the particular congregation — and thus a reason to extend policy-making power through a vote —  and not an endorsement of a particular spiritual state, which exists independently of church membership.
  • be extended on a basis of a “portfolio” of commonly-known community standards, including expressions of spiritual maturity and theological self-understanding, commitment of an appropriate level of financial support, a track record of participation and statement — I’d say “study plan” but that seems too academic — of faith goals the membership candidate wants to achieve under care of the church.

This means membership will be less common, but — I hope — more valuable, and should spare the new church from dilettantes with voting rights.

More on the reading list: for online community

I just found out that Jono Bacon’s The Art of Community — about creating and maintaining online communities — is now available free-of-charge (and under a Creative Commons BY-SA-NC license; it’s my favorite) as a downloadable PDF. Or, if you prefer, you can purchase a print copy.

I mention it here because I think healthy and robust online communities are essential for the revival of Universalist Christianity.

I’m quite excited about this. Jono Bacon is the Ubuntu Community Manager — I’ll not blog about Linux-y things at this blog, though; I’m keeping Boy in the Bands for that and other purposes — and knows his beans.

Since there might be others interested in this subject, I invite comments, especially for its use in religious community management.